Last fall, two farms in California’s Sacramento Valley planted a wildflower cover crop mix as part of a commitment to restore habitat within 325 acres of pecan orchards. The farms, Pacific Gold Agriculture and Bypass Farms, are participating in a project called “Orchards Alive” in hopes that wildflowers will attract pollinators and naturally reduce pest pressure.

Orchards Alive came about thanks to a $3 million monarch and pollinator recovery bill (AB 2421) designed to establish habitat restoration projects for important pollinator species facing steep population losses.

My EDF colleagues and I have been working with a coalition of partners including the National Center for Appropriate Technology and USDA’s Agriculture Research Service to help farms like Pacific Gold Agriculture and Bypass Farms achieve pollinator restoration and other benefits such as increased soil health, enhanced water management and pest control.

As summer starts to hit the Sacramento Valley, we are finally seeing some results.

A natural and beautiful solution for pest control

Alongside the pecan trees on the typically bare orchard floor, wildflowers have begun to grow and bloom, creating habitat for native pollinators and other wildlife including butterflies and ladybugs.

Pacific Gold Agriculture and Bypass Farms — two Sacramento Valley pecan orchards — are demonstrating that cover crops can attract insects that serve as pest control, like ladybugs, in addition to at-risk native pollinators, like monarch butterflies.

In a typical year, pecan farmers utilize insecticide to keep aphids, tiny white pests, off the trees in order to achieve a healthy crop and harvest. But insecticides can also harm other beneficial insects and pollinators.

Earlier this spring, our farmer partners spotted aphids on their pecan trees and were tempted to use insecticides to preserve their crop. However, due to the abundance of other beneficial insects in the orchards, they held out in hopes that these insects would do some of the pest control for them.

A week later, the number of aphids and other pests had reduced significantly, showing that the beneficial insects being drawn to the orchards by the cover crop mix were helping control pests the natural way.

“I was pleasantly surprised to see how quickly the cover crops did their job attracting ladybird beetle larvae and other bugs to dine on aphids,” said Rex Dufour, western regional director for the National Center for Appropriate Technology. “When there is such a biodiverse cover crop to feed parasites and predators, aphids don’t stand a chance. In short, the cover crop is doing its magic quite well.”

Lady beetle (ladybug) larvae and other beneficial insects eat approximately 50 aphids a day, providing natural pest protection on crops.

Making biodiversity part of the management equation

By relying on nature and biodiversity to perform pest management, these farmers were able to reduce conventional pest control costs and create a healthy habitat for farm-friendly insects and pollinators within the orchards.

Biodiversity is important for building resilience on farms. It helps increase soil health, enhance water management and, in this case, control pests.

The Orchards Alive project is helping create a model for other orchards seeking to gain multiple benefits from cover crops and biodiversity.

With the success of Pacific Gold Agriculture and Bypass Farms, we hope to get thousands of acres of orchards in the Sacramento Valley to proactively expand their operations in a way that benefits the farmers, the land and native wildlife.How a wildflower cover crop mix is helping two pecan orchards naturally reduce pest pressure.